Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Pacifica Radio: Following the Money

I’d been on the road for three weeks by the time I reached Berkeley at the end of February 2006. My Saturn wagon was stuffed with clothes, books and files, and my head was bursting with impressions. Pacifica Radio had tremendous potential – radio licenses in major markets, plenty of talent, an extraordinary history, access to a potential audience in the millions. But it was deeply wounded by years of internal struggle that had left people raw and distrustful. If I was going to succeed – whatever that meant – one of my tasks as the new Executive Director was to act as a healing influence, to help people trust each other and see that reconciliation was a safe and realistic possibility.

That was obviously a long-term project. In the meantime, I needed to get on top of some practical problems. KPFA needed a general manager. The lawsuit filed by Noelle Hanrahan had to be resolved, hopefully without an expensive trial. Negotiations with Free Speech Radio News had to begin. My relationship with Lonnie Hicks, the powerful Chief Financial Officer, would also have to be clarified. Plus, the next in-person meeting of the National Board was only a month away. That meant reports, my own as well as those by about a dozen managers and staff members, would have to be ready in about two weeks.

Of course, there was also the unexpected to consider. A prime example was the visit of two disability activists shortly after I returned to the Bay Area. Pacifica had been dragging its heels in complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act. But a compliance consultant had been found and apparently a contract for her services had been arranged. I hadn’t been told a word about it.

The “contract” the activists showed me was actually an unsigned two-page proposal submitted the previous October by ADA consultant Francie Moeller. No one in the office had seen it. When I called her up, however, she confirmed that Ambrose Lane, Interim ED prior to my arrival, and she had talked about five months ago. “Was a contract actually signed?” I asked. She assured me that it had been and agreed to forward a copy before we met.

A few days later a fax arrived. It was the same proposal I’d already seen, but this copy had a small addition. At the bottom of page two, just below Moeller’s signature, was the handwritten word “Approved,” followed by the signature of Ambrose Lane and a date, 10/30/05. She also sent the cover sheet of a fax she’d received from Ambrose on February 17. “Dear Mrs. Moeller,” it read, “Please forgive my tardiness in returning this signed Agreement. Thanks for all of your interest and commitment. Sincerely, Ambrose Lane Sr.” And this PS: “My replacement ED of Pacifica is Mr. Greg Guma.”

The problem was that the signatures on the fax and the proposal were identical and had obviously been written with the same pen. The October date also sounded familiar for some reason. Looking back in my date book I realize that it was the very day I had been given my final interview for the job in Houston. That meant Ambrose would have decided, in the midst of the busy PNB meeting, to sign a preliminary proposal that could cost the organization up to $20,000, then set it aside for five months and not tell anyone what he’d done.

I took the papers to Lonnie, who said he knew nothing about an agreement. How could Ambrose have worked in the same office with him for months and not mention such a thing? I showed him the signatures. He nodded, acknowledging my concern, but advised that I drop the matter. There was little to be gained by getting into a fight, he felt, even though the proposal was vague, lacked specific performance standards, and might lead to disputes down the line.

The situation reminded me of another controversial matter on my desk. A year before the national office had spent about $66,000 on 18 iMac computers, supposedly for the purpose of enhancing remote broadcasting capabilities. The idea was promising but few people knew in advance that a decision had been made. As CFO, Lonnie was obviously involved. So was Don Rojas, then manager of WBAI. And it appeared that Dan Coughlin had originally suggested a similar project. But most station managers knew nothing about it, and when the computers arrived, they said the choice of Macs made them less than useful. Stations mainly used PCs, and these new machines required expensive, proprietary software. Most of the computers had remained unopened in storage rooms around the country for the last year. A couple shipped to New York had disappeared.

The Board knew about the computers and several members were demanding an audit. Who was responsible for this “boondoggle,” they wanted to know. And where was all the equipment now? I was expected to provide a report at the next in-person meeting.

The trail led back to Lonnie. Few things in Pacifica that involved a substantial amount of money happened without his involvement – and usually his approval. The only exceptions I’d seen so far were the settlement with Roy Campanella at KPFA and the ADA agreement, both arranged by Ambrose during his stint as Interim ED without Lonnie’s apparent oversight. On the other hand, Lonnie sometimes pursued projects he defined as part of his “development” function without Board review or ED agreement. In short, an ED couldn’t normally proceed on a project without the CFO’s sign off, but the opposite wasn’t always true. If I was going to effectively oversee finances, supposedly part of my job, my relationship with the CFO would have to be clarified.

According to the hire letter I’d received, I was the supervisor of the station managers and all national staff – except the CFO, who reported directly to the Board. But that suggested that I did supervise the finance staff in the Berkeley office. In addition, Lonnie’s original hire letter, signed by Dan Coughlin in 2002, said that the CFO worked “under the supervision of” the executive director. After reviewing the situation with the HR Director I asked Lonnie in for a talk.

As far as he was concerned, the CFO was completely independent, accountable only to the Board. And the finance staff reported to him, not me. In fact, if I wanted any financial information he preferred that I request it from him rather than go to the staffer who might actually have it. He was especially sensitive about any contact with Assistant Controller Lynn Magno, who I’d met early on and asked to serve as part of my transition team. Every time we talked, she said, he would come over afterward and grill her about the conversation.

It quickly became clear that Lonnie wouldn’t submit to increased oversight without taking his case to the board. It was too early for such a confrontation. He knew much more about the flow of money and the internal dynamics of the organization. In a board fight so early in my tenure I was apt to lose. Even if I won the office atmosphere would be terrible afterward. The best course, at least for a while, was to reach an accord. I won’t challenge your view of the situation, I offered, if you make sure to consult me about all financial matters from now on. “I’m happy to comply,” he replied.

Part Thirteen of Pacifica Radio: A Listening Tour

Next: Assessing the Deficit of Trust

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